Cuban Art World — all you need to know about Cuban art and artists

Manuel Mendive print

If you’re an American, you need to be careful about the kind of art that you bring home from Cuba.

OFAC regulations allow you to bring art from Cuba back into the US. (You can find the OFAC regs here.)

Before you start buying though, there is one caveat that you need to keep in mind.  The art must be ORIGINAL.

So just what is ORIGINAL ART?

The US government uses the following criteria:

Paintings, drawings, and pastels must be executed entirely by hand.

Hand painted or hand decorated manufactured articles don’t qualify.

As for prints:

“Original engravings, prints and lithographs” means impressions produced directly, in black and white or in color, of one or of several plates wholly executed by hand by the artist, irrespective of the process or of the material employed by him, but not including any mechanical or photomechanical process.

This does not apply to mass-produced reproductions or works of conventional craftsmanship of a commercial character, even if these articles are designed or created by artists.

Frames around paintings, drawings, pastels, collages or similar decorative plaques, engravings, prints or lithographs are to be classified with those articles, provided they are of a kind and of a value normal to those articles. Frames which are not of a kind or of a value normal to the articles referred to in this note are to be classified separately.

Regarding sculpture:

Original sculpture made by the sculptor is covered as is the first 12 castings, replicas or reproductions made from a sculptor’s original work or model, by the sculptor himself or by another artist, with or without a change in scale and whether or not the sculptor is alive at the time the castings, replicas or reproductions are completed.

The regulations raise many questions.

Original engravings, prints and lithographs, framed are not framed, are permitted. But how do you assess whether or not your print is original? Is it enough for it to be signed and numbered?  What if it is labeled an “artist-signed and numbered, limited edition fine art lithograph?”

Many people think that they’re getting original artwork when they’re really getting prints that could come from their local copy shop.

Alan Bamberger, the author of The Art of Buying Art says:

These limited edition prints are not original works of art. They are not made by the artists who conceive of and create the originals. They are copies of original works of art that are printed by the printing companies. You do not get original works of art when you buy them; you get signatures of artists on mechanically produced copies of original works of art.

In other words, most artists play little or no part in the reproduction process — all they do is sign and number the finished copy prints.

In the US and Europe, publishing companies use a couple of techniques to hide the fact that prints are copies and not originals. For example, they print the copies in limited quantities and then have the artists sign and number them so that buyers confuse the work with the etchings and lithographs that are entirely conceived, created and produced by hand by fine artists known as “printmakers.”

Printmaking in Cuba is a well-established and longstanding institution.

It’s easy to get around the “copy-print problem”  in Cuba. Just go to one of the prominent Tallers and buy your work there. And while you’re at it, have fun watching the artists do their work.

Although the Taller in the You Tube video below is located in Miami, you’ll get a real flavor for the kind of process you’ll see at work in the Taller in Havana.

If you’re not a knowledgeable purchaser of prints, you may run in to a major problem. At least I have. There are many different names for prints including offset lithographs, serigraphs, and collotypes. (I’ve heard this last called collographs in Cuba.) When you ask people to tell you about the print you’re looking at, you often get nebulous and confusing answers. So it pays to do your homework before you go. Even if you don’t think you’ll be buying prints you may find that you’ve changed your mind after you see the offerings. Two of my first three Cuban art purchases were prints from Taller Experimental de Grafica right off the Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana.

Here are some questions that you will want to ask before you buy:

Is this print a copy or reproduction of an original work of art?

Is this a copy or reproduction of  an original work of art that has been retouched by an artist?

Be especially careful if you’re buying what you think is a vintage photograph.

Reprints of vintage photographic images are plentiful. (I’ve found out the hard way.) These are often enlarged from the originals and are occasionally signed, titled, numbered or accompanied by certificates of authenticity. The original photographers are often famous and may or may not still be alive. The original photographs themselves are often valuable or collectible, and their subject matter is often historical or significant.

Copy-photographs can be made from any existing photographic image including negatives, positives, digital files, and moving picture film. Selling prices can range well into the hundreds of dollars.

If you have doubts about what you’re looking at ask the seller:

Is this a copy or a reproduction of an original vintage photograph?

Will you get a truthful answer? Hard to tell, but sometimes just asking the question is enough to keep the seller on the straight and narrow.

Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe of print by Manuel Mendive.


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